Ever wonder how Amazon gets your packages to you so quickly?
This week I took my family on the Amazon Fulfillment Center tour of “MSP1” here in Minneapolis. Amazon warehouse tours are available at 23 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and each tour shares a behind the scenes look at how technology and staff combine to fulfill your order after you checkout on Amazon.com.
We got to see kiva robots navigate the warehouse floor using barcode stickers on the floor, which was by far the best part of the tour! These robots hold portable shelving units of products and bring them to a human “picker,” who stands still while the robots bring the shelves to him or her, to “pick” the products for your order. It’s mesmerizing to see them at work (see this video!).
We got to see enough miles of conveyor belts; more than the distance between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. And chutes, tunnels, slides, and automated stamping machines processing orders. The tour guide told us this facility was processing thousands of packages a second on Cyber Monday last year. Thousands of packages per second!
And we saw humans at work, too. There has been a lot of conversation and controversy about Amazon’s hiring practices, employee treatment and working conditions. The tour focused on the positives, of course, but we saw firsthand the diversity of employees, the metal detectors when you leave the building, and the need to remember the actual human beings powering a robotic warehouse of the future.
In fact, the role of humans at an Amazon Fulfillment Center is often more robotic than the robots, and perhaps a glimpse of where our tech-obsessed society could be going. In the era of Uber, GrubHub and Postmates, we increasingly experience humans taking orders from a robots to fulfill the wishes of another human who used technology to increase their personal convenience. It’s normalized behavior and does in fact create jobs, but perhaps not the jobs we expected.
It’s not a dire situation, but there are more than a few sci-fi movies that show how this plays out. Meanwhile, it was a compelling experience to show my kids how that Amazon box on the front porch got to us so quickly. It has spurned a lot of questions and probing, including conversation about who invented the robots and algorithms powering them, who invented the conveyor belt system, who drives the semi-trucks, and “Why can’t they just make more robots that do the human jobs?”
Let’s just hope the robots don’t learn to make themselves. Yet.
See you on the internet!